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Visions Journal

Learning to Love Unconditionally

T.E. Letts

Reprinted from the Families, Friends and Substance Abuse issue of Visions Journal, 2024, 19 (2), pp. 28-30

T.E. Letts, author of Learning to Love Unconditionally

The flashing caller ID “” catches my attention as my smartphone buzzes. Feeling the vibration in my hand, I watch it scroll across the screen. The phone rings three or four times before going to voicemail. Soon enough, it vibrates again: I have a message. One I know I will never listen to. A robotic voice echoing the phrase I have become all too familiar with.

“This is a pre-paid call from …” 

I don’t need to hear it. I'm aware who is on the other end. Not long ago, missing a call like this would have left me devastated. But today is different. 

The caller is only calling because he’s bored, not realizing that constant calls disrupt the delicate balance between functioning and the impulse to remain hidden under covers. I am not happy my son is behind bars. It isn’t a rehabilitative experience for him, but one that invokes an already acute trauma response. His stress reaction can easily trigger mine. 

When I know my mental health is most at risk, I’ve learned I have the agency to consciously decide whether to engage. I’m no longer driven solely by the involuntary impulses of my central nervous system and can make rational choices based on my own capacity.

A difficult trajectory

My son, according to society’s standards, carries the label of prolific offender. The courts have stamped this designation on him, an outcome of 37 convictions. As he navigates his way through another stint of pre-trial remand, waiting for his lawyer and the Crown prosecution to decide his fate, it’s clear he is not new to this system. Sadly, he is comfortable there. Denied bail due to his persistent breaching of conditions, he remains locked up for the foreseeable future.

My son’s criminal pursuits are rooted in subsistence, a means of finding the $200-plus dollars a day needed to support his opioid dependence. His preference for opioids, now mixed with high concentrations of benzodiazepines, embodies his desperate need for escape. The recent appearance of xylazine in the street supply only amplifies the risk to his life and well-being. This reality rests heavily on my heart and soul.

His journey into substance use started during his early years. Introduced to oxycontin at age 14, the drug transformed his world. Oxycontin gave him a way to make extra money and access to a community where he’d never felt he belonged. Always a shy and hesitant boy, the drug let him to step out of his shell of caution and reticence and provided new-found confidence. Friendships solidified, interactions with his hockey teammates improved and he finally felt accepted. 

Coming to awareness

As a parent I attributed this transformation to natural maturity, oblivious to the role substances played. But around his twentieth birthday the grip of addiction became inescapable. His nods of drowsiness, isolation, missing belongings and withdrawal from family activities became the norm. Yet, it took a pointed text from one of his friends to shatter any denial we clung to. In hindsight, our family had been living in a stress state, waiting for something succinct to happen. We received the message loud and clear: my son was ensnared in the clutches of opioid addiction. 

While I thought I had a fair understanding of drug culture, I was unprepared. Generational substance use coursed through my family history, although it was primarily alcohol. My son’s father and my own brother both struggled with addiction, but this was different. This was my child, my flesh and blood, whom I promised at birth to protect from all the world’s perils. 

My response was immediate and intense, plunging my family into chaos. I tackled my son’s drug use head-on with single-minded determination. This became my sole focus, to the detriment of my family. My head was telling me I was the only one who could save him, not knowing this strategy was a recipe for failure. 

My lack of understanding about addiction and drug use, coupled with my reliance on anecdotal and misleading third-party information, made an already tense household environment worse. I was inundated with conflicting feelings that ran against my instincts, generating guilt and a rapid decline in my mental well-being. As I fixated on my son’s predicament, I was losing sight of myself and alienating those around me. I was in a downward spiral that I knew in my gut only I could stop. I realized I was no good to anyone if I wasn’t good to myself. 

Information brings an opening

Knowledge became my lifeline. Looking beyond sponsored Google ads, I searched for articles and scientific studies that delved into mental health and addictions. Embracing evidence-based teachings, I re-evaluated my own relationship with substances and confronted my own internal biases. I discovered Moms Stop the Harm, a group that advocates for an end to substance use–related stigma, harm and death. The group validated my new ideas. The lens through which I saw my son and his circumstances changed. The overwhelming burden of self-inflicted guilt began to fade. 

Shifting my focus from control to understanding was pivotal. I stopped the dehumanizing attempts to dictate his life, allowing him to reclaim his dignity and worth. Disengaging from negative interactions, I turned my attention to trying to understand his world. But my most impactful shift was simply listening.

Occasionally, darkness sneaks in and tries to hijack my thoughts, the precursor to what’s known as anticipatory grief. Accepting that an unidentified blocked ID could deliver life-changing news at any moment is part of my reality. My son’s reliance on street drugs with unknown content and potency places him in constant peril. Over the past seven years since BC declared toxic drug deaths a public health emergency, our family has sadly had to accept that this may very well be my son’s fate.

My concern extends to my partner and other children, who have also suffered losses among their friends, classmates and co-workers. The weight of possibly losing their brother presses heavily on his siblings, who navigate their own anticipatory grief. This journey, marked by anger, frustration, hurt, as well as time and distance, is gradually leading to acceptance and reconciliation. 

Family gatherings are becoming more frequent—lunches, days at the beach and birthday celebrations—though they are tinged with uncertainty. My son’s comfort zones have shifted, so we’ve shifted with him. His world is not ours, but there’s a place in his for us, as in ours for him. We hold space for when he’s ready. 

As a family, we have embraced acceptance. Our decisions are driven by compromise, consent and understanding. We’ve learned to listen to ourselves and understand our limitations and capacity. The life my son leads is not one we had envisioned, yet our love remains unconditional and unwavering.

* * *

Postscript: Sadly our family lost Micheal (age 31), to an accidental drug poisoning on Feb. 3, 2024. Though heartbroken, our family takes comfort in the fact Micheal knew and felt how much we loved him.

About the author

T.E. (she/her) lives in the South Fraser Community of Langley with her partner and youngest daughter. She is a proud mother of three and loves being a grandmother. T.E. is also vice-chair of the national organization Moms Stop The Harm and takes a harm reduction approach to her work. She is passionate about harm reduction and drug policy reform

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